Thursday, November 30, 2000
Welcome to the Machine
by Clinton Fein
And so it came to pass. The dullest candidates in history, running the dullest of campaigns on the dullest of issues ended up jointly losing the presidency in an election that left the country gratefully leaderless and revealing the media for the inaccurate, clumsy and irresponsible monster it has become.
Moments after the mass media machine (led by the prostate-challenged Rupert Murdoch's Fox News) revealed that Gore had taken Florida in early reports; it was forced to retract owing to a singular reliance on a malfunctioning machine (operated by a Bush cousin?) transmitting an incorrect tally. America and the world became aware, for the first time perhaps, that the quality of the media coverage in a breathless race for ratings over substance was, in all its sensational overproduction, responsible for interfering dangerously with a presidential election. Threatening the very democracy that gives the media license to lie, misrepresent information and shape opinion in the guise of legitimate news.
There is no doubt that the role the media played election night affected what has since become the non-outcome. From that moment on we have been forced to stomach such horror ranging from the spit-squealing Chris Matthews on MSNBC to his smugly insincere NBC colleague Tim Russert. From teacher's pet goody two-shoes Chris Jansing; to a Phen-Fen-emaciated looking Judy Fortin on CNN. These arrogant talking heads took about as much responsibility for the results of their gutter quality coverage as those responsible for green lighting the butterfly ballot took for a design interface so user-friendly and simple only a mere nineteen thousand Floridians fucked up.
Following the ever-so quick and half hearted acknowledgement that their careless rush to judgment had any impact whatsoever on the election, the media turned with fervor to the world of recounts and undervotes, cheating and chads. Pregnant chads, dimpled chads, hanging chads, loose chads.
Candidates and their supporters served up hollow glorifications of the constitutional issues the deadlock presented (as opposed to personal family disappointments and the failed expectations of entitlement). With each desperate plea, came an increase in the backdrop of American flags designed to distract us from their blatant reliance on Teleprompters and their visible self-doubt.
Lost in the twenty-four hour mediathon that New York Times' Frank Rich articulately predicted would be short in lifespan owing to the absence of sex was a bitter and delicious irony. The very mistake that permeated both campaigns pre-election - the misuse of the word fuzzy and its connotations -- turned out to be at the core of this embarrassing post election stalemate.
From the first debate, George W. Bush mocked what he termed Al Gore's "fuzzy math," suggesting that Gore's calculations did not compute - even going so far as to suggest Gore invented the calculator. In turn, Gore, in campaign stumps that followed, led the crowds to chant "fuzzy math, fuzzy math!" (Following explanations as to why Bush's calculations for Social Security did not add up).
Fuzzy logic, actually, is a concept that can be defined as: "a form of knowledge representation suitable for notions that cannot be defined precisely, but depend upon their context." It enables computerized devices to reason more like humans. A familiar concept to those in the field of artificial intelligence, fuzzy logic enables a simulation of cognitive reasoning through contextual associations and symbols rather than a reliance on pure numbers, namely 1s and 0s.
In Florida's post election bloodbath, a fierce debate over the merits of man versus machine dominates the reasoning behind the rhetoric and the mushrooming litigation. Machines, the Democrats argue, are incapable of determining the intent of the voter, thus rejecting thousands of ballots not clearly punched. Machines, retort the Republicans, are non partisan and thus not susceptible to human error, subjectivity and worse yet, mischief.
In our quest to create technologically advanced, smart machines -- a central campaign theme ranging from Gore's lofty Internet claims to Bush's future anti missile defense spending justifications -- scientists and researchers have studied and continue to study the human mind in efforts to simulate it. The ability of the human mind to filter and selectively apply extraneous variables in the formulation of decisions is what constitutes intelligence. The mind's tolerance of imprecision, uncertainty and partial truth allows it to achieve flexibility, robustness and pliability. This is both a foundation and goal in the design of intelligent technology.
The human mind however is susceptible to quaint such notions as fatigue, blurry vision, unruly mobs, partisanship, media influence and a host of other such external influences that limit effectiveness in its pursuit of speed, precision and accuracy.
While Democrats return to their caves and embark on a Luddite-like rage against the machines, choosing instead to rely on the instincts of elderly Floridian's who genuinely care about prescription drugs as they grow foggy-eyed counting ballot after ballot, Republicans are hedging their bets on the machines. But not smart machines that use a skillful blend of artificial intelligence, robotics and natural language to discern intent and apply logic and reason, but dumb machines communicating with even dumber machines built over a hundred years ago that inspire as much certainty in their accuracy as the bipartisanship in Katherine Harris's electoral college certification decision.
Whoever wins loses and whoever loses loses too. There are no winners in this political game except perhaps the media who helped create the quagmire - no doubt altruistically to prevent us from being bored to death by the candidates and the campaigns. Sure there were elections in Canada, and an early election in Israel will follow soon, but these just aren't talking-head-worthy.
For those of us sick of the twenty-four hour election coverage, fear not. After all, it's nearly Christmas and the fourth year anniversary of JonBenet Ramsey will provide just the right touch of media diversity to keep us adequately stuffed with everything we deserve well into the New Year.
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